Human beings do not flourish in isolation. Politics, racial tensions, and a host of other social maladies have been the ostensible reason for riots and chaos in this past year. However, dismissing the deleterious effects of social distancing, enforced isolation, and long quarantines on the human psyche seems blind at best—and dangerously foolish at worst—in explaining one of the reasons why our public emotions have reached a fevered intensity. Western populations are angry, and basic social and economic liberties have been whittled away in the face of an unseen, viral enemy. The inconsistent application of liberty, restricting of policies, and the questionable effectiveness of these actions, have fueled a powder keg of frustration. More outbursts can be anticipated unless we, as a population, take bold steps to recover the communities that we so desperately need in order to live fully human lives.
The physical need for tactile human proximity has never been more painfully evident than with the current COVID-19 restrictions—created to preserve physical health, but having done little to support the psychological and social health of the human being. By allowing governments to sow the seeds of fear, we have come to depend on people in distant capitals (rather than those in our own communities) to make policies for decision-making.
We, as individuals in a human community, have paid a high price for this palpable fear. Weddings, Baptisms, funerals, graduations, and holiday celebrations: all the things marking our human time on this earth, have wilted away in the face of panic. Away from our altars and into the ugly, uncensored nonsense of digital streaming, we have unquestioningly allowed ourselves to be led. Sitting on our sofas in front of our screens, do we have the audacity and courage left to make a connection between pandemic isolation policies, and chaos in the streets? Manners, respect, and consideration can only thrive in a community of persons. Without a physical community, respect for others is no longer needed, and we quickly devolve into a maelstrom of outrageous and egregious behavior.
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This is not simply an American phenomenon; it is global in reach. To reduce the transmission of COVID-19 here in Germany where I live, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of government of the German federal states have put in place severely restrictive social measures. Health experts concede these restrictions have been employed, despite any proof that such measures mitigate the increased spread of the virus. On the same day the new restrictions were published, an English German newspaper ran articles about how unemployment has not risen, and how the ability to reach climate control goals in Germany has finally been made possible during the pandemic.
The German population is now, at least theoretically, in almost total isolation. Social contacts are not even permissible amongst extended family members or neighbors. Over the New Year’s weekend, many Germans went to popular hiking spots to walk and sled on snow covered hills. The government responded by closing parking lots adjacent to these sites. There is a gloomy quiet blanketing this nation who, under normal times, is renowned worldwide for gregarious, communal celebrations of hops and grapes.
The immediate result of these more restrictive policies is the deepening enmity amongst people who tend to be taciturn by nature anyway. Furtive glances over mask covered faces reveal deep seated fears about catching a virus in which far more people recover than die.
Isolation and quarantining are dangerous and antithetical to the very constitution of any human being, regardless of nationality. Results from a multitude of psychological studies show that social isolation increases real physical effects such as high cholesterol, blood pressure, and obesity. Pathologically, men seem to suffer more from social isolation than women. Indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement (in excess of fifteen days) has been called torture by the United Nations, and is strongly discouraged. Although solitary confinement is still used in the United States, in Germany it occurs rarely—and even then, lasts only three to five days. There is a certain macabre irony in the fact that strict COVID-19 restrictions have been in place in Germany since November 10. Sadly, none of these measures have yet been proven successful in abating the spread of the virus.
The deep-seated concern—if not obsession—for physical health on both sides of the Atlantic is only possible in an environment where humans are seen first and foremost as a corporal beings, rather than amalgamations of body, soul, and spirit. As Europe and the United States move into a post-Christian, secular age, can there be any other way to assess the true nature of the human being, except as a material entity? Governments who view people and life only as material ends rather than living human souls, teeter on a very precipitous slope. Slavery and abortion in the United States, and the Jewish Holocaust in Germany, have poignantly and tragically proven the catastrophic results of a strictly material assessment of the human being.
One of the strangest perversions of the worldwide pandemic restrictions has been the use of Christ’s command to “love thy neighbor” in encouraging social distancing and isolation. Cloaked in a guise of caring, the world’s human population has been effectively controlled by (one can only hope well-intended) governments, purportedly concerned for each individuals’ physical health. Politicians have assiduously mandated policies allowing for their own immunity from personal responsibility for the spread of the virus, rather than pursuing the best policies for the social and mental well being of the human person.
At the heart of these draconian isolation policies is the nugget of power; the ultimate drug that few humans can resist. For American and European leaders to remain in political control, the use of power and authority has been required to delegate the health of communities to the health of individuals. Science, instead of leadership, has allowed elected politicians to allegedly keep humanity safe by breaking apart the social and physical networks needed for healthy community life.
Governments may deliver a vaccine, but they will not repair our communities. Our personal responsibility, as both leaders and members of communities, belongs to us alone. Ironically, Christian congregations may be the best places for people of faith who utterly understand the value of community. These small, particular communities could serve as an example for a larger, national community—one desperately needing to recover a communal spirit. Each parish community or congregation has the genius and creativity granted by the Holy Spirit to become a vibrant place of both worship, and faithful social community life. Prayer and commitment to rebuilding can lead us out of loneliness, and into a newness of life and health for a parish and a nation.
The shackles of isolation and quarantining have been costly to the human spirit. For the love of all humanity, we must emerge from our masks and turn toward each other. In the arms of a community of prayer and of each other, we can uniquely regain our wonderful humanity, found in a complex and miraculous mosaic of body and blood, spirit and soul. Doctoral candidates yet to be born will write thesis after thesis about the role of governments in fighting the pandemic. Yet, our collective human character can write its own story now, as we stand up and fight for the rebuilding of our communities; communities that every human being inherently knows are necessary for human flourishing and salvation.
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